Part of a
Cox & Kings' trip to Russia and the Baltic States
We had left our hotel (Von Stackleberg) in Tallinn at 8.00 a.m. and had passed through the border between Estonia and Latvia at around mid-day.
Initially, the Latvian countryside did not differ substantially from that of Estonia – however, the roads were very much more in need of repair than those we had become used to in Tallinn and beyond.
Wednesday 29th June
On crossing from Latvia, we were immediately struck by the better roads and more cultivated fields. Many side roads were still unmade but EU funds had greatly improved the main roads with numerous signs testifying to this support.
The EU has been welcomed by the younger people as they can travel freely and move to other countries.
Average earnings are in the region of £7,000.00 per annum with houses in the countryside costing around £50,000 for a reasonable property.
We stopped at a hill of innumerable crosses (perhaps 100,000). This was on a pagan site but has now become a place of pilgrimage. It appeared very strange to us. Whilst there we were able to get close up photos of a stork’s nest and young. We had passed many storks along the road and they are indigenous to all three Baltic countries.
We enjoyed a meal in another out of the way restaurant based around an old windmill and with a sculpture park surrounding it.
In the late afternoon we arrived at Palanga, a coastal resort with an amber museum in a 19th century palace surrounded by a park with many trees. Our guide pointed out people at the edge of the road with signs indicating that they had rooms available to let to tourists.
A welcome walk through the arboretum, took us to the museum.
Finally we arrived at Klaipeda at around 7.00 p.m. Our hotel, the Amberton Klaipeda, was housed in part in a very modern high-rise angular building.
Thursday 30th June
A two hour walking tour of Klaipeda changed our opinion of the small city (170,000 inhabitants) which has a number of old and interesting buildings. Some were reminiscent of Germany - the town having been German until 1944. There were many sculptures, the majority of which were said to bring good luck if suitably touched and wishes made!
Again we were faced with a 300 km journey but this time on motorway standard roads, again courtesy of the EU! A very slow stop for coffee was followed some hours later by our 3.00 p.m. lunch at a roadside restaurant. Again this was a leisurely affair but it meant that we did not arrive in Vilnius until 5.45 p.m.
We had been concerned about our itinerary for the morning in that our city tour was shown as beginning at 8.00 a.m. and, given that it appeared we would need to be at the airport the following day at 4.30 a.m. this seemed unnecessarily tiring and foreshortening for the night’s sleep. We took a vote on this and 15 of the 17 members of our party wanted to change the time to either 8.30 a.m. or 9.00 a.m. – however the other 2 were adamant that they wanted what was declared in the itinerary and that they would complain about the guide if it was changed. Therefore we all were forced to follow the wishes of the very much outnumbered minority.
We entered the Centrum Artis Hotel feeling very tired after our long day of travel – only to find that the hotel said that they had no note of our booking and no room available either for one or two nights! Our local guide, Raza, had to return to Klaipeda where she lives and had already missed her train – she was therefore faced with a long bus journey instead and would not get home til after midnight. We urged her to leave us and said that we would deal with the situation, thinking that it would be fairly easily resolved. However, it soon became apparent that we had a significant problem. The hotel informed us, eventually, that they could secure us a room in one of their other hotels – a twenty minute journey away by road. This would mean that we were separated from the rest of the group and that we would be at risk of not being included in pick-ups etc including for the airport on Saturday morning.
Adrian phoned Cox and Kings back in London and managed, by a fortuitous quirk, to get hold of the Marketing Manager and another significant member of staff. They undertook to sort things out but we waited over an hour without hearing anything. A second call followed and eventually the Reception Staff came to us (by now exhausted and stressed sitting on the sofa by their desk) and said “Good News” – they had found us a room, in the hotel we were supposed to be in and with the other members of the group.
We were duly given the room key and went up to the fourth floor relieved and beginning to feel slightly better (we had been very touched when one of the four Indian doctors travelling with us had brought us a cup of tea and a biscuit as we sat out our long wait). Our joy was to be short-lived however. We used the card and opened the door – only to behold two soldiers in khaki camouflage uniform, a very stern, typically soviet, woman security officer, and a large German Shepherd dog. One of the soldiers was sweeping the room for bugs with the metal instrument typically used for such an activity whilst another had a mirror and was looking beneath table tops! They were as surprised to see us as we were to behold them! They informed us that the room was for a “VIP” who turned out to be the Defence Minister and that Reception had evidently made a mistake! They were not impressed when Adrian declared that we were VIPs!
We returned to Reception, by now utterly dejected. However they miraculously managed to find us another room (this from the hotel who had declared that they were totally full when we had arrived!) and the girl from Reception accompanied us this time – presumably to be sure that there was no other VIP occupying it. It turned out to be empty but absolutely wreaking of smoke. We felt that we couldn’t object when we had gone through so much so put up with it – although we had to throw the windows and door wide open.
Within 5 minutes, we received a phone call from Cox and Kings to check that we were now alright – and to affirm that the mistake was not theirs but the hotels. This would seem to be borne out by the fact that we were originally offered a suite (even if only for seconds) and that a large cellophane encased bowl of fruit mysteriously appeared in our room whilst we popped out to the local supermarket.
We then retired exhausted to bed.
Friday 1st July
An 8.00 a.m. start (having lost yesterday’s battle) for our largely walking tour of Vilnius. Due to 3 wars in the 17th and 18th century, most earlier buildings have been destroyed – leaving a largely baroque city.
We visited the Cathedral Square, the wildly baroque Church of St. Peter and Paul, and the Tolerance Centre. The latter dealt with the terrible treatment of the 250,000 Jews of Lithuania. The Jewish population is now around 5,000. Many of the 10% of Jewish people that survived the War have left during the intervening period. The museum is very well presented.
Having been close to the Gediminus Castle, we took the funicular railway with Moira and Ted up the hill, to the remaining tower of this 13th century castle where good views were to be had over Vilnius. We then had a cup of coffee with M & T as they are not leaving until Sunday. We subsequently had lunch – made more exciting by the coming and going of numerous police and security people who accompanied two small groups of dignitaries who were presumably connected with the conference in Vilnius where women leaders from all over the world had gathered for this historic event on the importance of the role women play in improving democracy.
Around 130 most prominent and active women from over 40 countries of the world took part in the conference, which was titled ‘Women Enhancing Democracy: Best Practices'.
After lunch we wandered around some of the streets of Vilnius Old Town and then returned to our room to edit and upload photos and make up this diary. We also needed to be well organised ahead of tomorrow’s early departure – which we were relieved to learn today involves us in leaving the hotel at 4.30 a.m. rather than arriving at the airport at that time. However, when one realises that it is the equivalent of 2.30 a.m. UK time and that we are going to see Keri and family who are hosting Emma and her family, then it makes us feel exhausted even to think about it. We are actively considering booking a hotel in the Walton on Thames area rather than driving back to Wiltshire on the same day.
The city is 86% Lithuanian & 6% Russian.
It is a very green city with 46% being open spaces.
Lithuania was apparently attacked by the Crusaders, a fact of which we were previously unaware. It did not become Christian until the 14th century. More recently, as the first country to leave the Soviet Union in 1990, it was faced with tanks entering the city and taking the TV tower - but subsequently withdrawing. It is believed that Gorbachev did not want to face international criticism.